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NREL's multi-junction solar cells teach scientists how to turn plants into powerhouses
Date:5/12/2011

and Senior Scientist Mark Hanna recently demonstrated how a multi-junction, tandem solar cell for water splitting to produce hydrogen can provide higher efficiency more than 40 percent -- by using multiple semiconductors and/or special photoactive organic molecules with different band gaps arranged in a tandem structure.

The coupling of different materials with different gaps means photons can be absorbed and converted to energy over a wider range of the solar spectrum.

"In photovoltaics, we know that to increase power conversion efficiency you have to have different band gaps (i.e., colors) in a tandem arrangement so they can more efficiently use different regions of the solar spectrum," Nozik said. "If you had the same gap, they would compete with each other and both would absorb the same photon energies and not enhance the solar conversion efficiency."

Photosynthesis does use two gaps based on chlorophyll molecules to provide enough energy to drive the photosynthesis reaction. But the two gaps have the same energy value, which means they don't help each other to produce energy over a wider stretch of the spectrum of solar light and enhance conversion efficiency.

Furthermore, most plants do use the full intensity of sunlight but divert some of it to protect the plant from damage. Whereas photovoltaics use the second material to gain that photoconversion edge, plants do not, Nozik noted.

One of NREL's roles at the DOE workshop was to help make it clear how the efficiency of photosynthesis could be improved by re-engineering the structure of plants through modern synthetic biology and genetic manipulation based on the principles of high efficiency photovoltaic cells, Nozik said. In synthetic biology plants can be built from scratch, starting with amino acid building blocks, allowing the formation of optimum biological band gaps.

The newly engineered plants would be darker, incorporating some biological pigmen
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Contact: Bill Scanlon
william.scanlon@nrel.gov
303-275-4051
DOE/National Renewable Energy Laboratory
Source:Eurekalert

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